Seeking Onement

Onement 1

Barnett Newman, 1948

A buddhist monk walks up to a hot dog vendor and says, “make me one with everything.”

…So the vendor gives him a hot dog and the monk gives him a twenty dollar bill. After a moment of waiting, the monk asks, “Where’s my change?”

The vendor smiles and says, “Ahh, change must come from within.”


Atonement is not a word we hear very often in everyday conversation. It is a word used primarily in law schools or seminaries. For legal scholars, it means making amends for a crime. For religious folks, especially Christians and Jews, it has to do with reconciling with God by seeking forgiveness for our sins and performing some act of penance. In either case, atonement is a heavy word, a ponderous word, a word that tends fall with a thud in the middle of a conversation like a cinder block.

But the word itself comes from an idea that is completely different. In the time of Shakespeare, onement meant unity or harmony. Onement is the state of being in harmony with those around you. It means being reconciled with God and our neighbor. Viewed from that perspective, atonement, or at-onement, simply means being in perfect unity with the will and spirit of God.

Lent is a time when we seek to restore our harmony with God. It is a time when we strive for onement.

For most of us, being “at one” conveys an image of inner peace and tranquility. Instead of rushing around from one appointment to another, we try to be more balanced and grounded. Instead of concentrating on all of the ways in which we have failed in our relationships – relationships with God and our family, friends, coworkers – we reflect on being reunited with them in wholeness and love.

But how do we achieve onement?

I believe that this is where our relationship with Christ comes in. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the perfect model of onement with God and our fellow human beings. Jesus Christ was “one with everything.” In fact, one way to think about the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is as a state of perfect wholeness, a state of oneness, with God.

This is why most of us achieve onement is through our relationship with Jesus Christ. As followers of his way, our goal is that same inner harmony and unity with God and God’s creation that Christ had. Whenever we pray “thy kingdom come,” we are praying for that same inner peace and union with God. And whenever we ask for our sins to be forgiven, we are asking for our relationship with God to be restored. We atone so that we can be at one with God.

Lent is the time that we seek to restore the balance and harmony of our relationship with God. It is a time when we try to remember who and whose we are. Through acts of prayer, confession, penance, and self-examination, we try to remove the things that get between us and God – the distractions of our self-importance and our busyness, the impediments to our relationships with friends and family. Our goal is not forgiveness for the sake of forgiveness, however wonderful that may be. Instead, we seek forgiveness so that we may attain onement. Onement with God and with our fellow human beings.

In 1948, American artist Barnett Newman painted a work titled “Onement.” It is a single bright orange line painted down a blood red canvas. For me, it conveys the sense of union with God and all creation that Christ taught us to seek. The perfect balance, the perfect harmony, the perfect peace of God.

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